Laboring For A Settlement


The American Jewish Committee is grappling with internal labor unrest that threatens to mar its showcase annual meeting in Washington, D.C., next week featuring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

About 75 AJCommittee senior staff professionals nationwide staged a one-day May Day work stoppage to show their frustration with stalled contract negotiations since the last three-year pact expired in December.

It’s the first time such a labor action has been taken in decades against what some consider America’s “pioneer human relations group,” said union spokesman Jonathan Levine, a senior AJCommittee staffer based in Chicago.

Levine claims AJCommittee salaries are below other Jewish organizations, forcing valuable longtime staffers to leave.

“Morale is really at a low. The work stoppage really grew out of a great deal of frustration and even anger on the part of our membership,” said Levine, a 20-year AJCommittee veteran who said he had never before seen such an outburst.

“This is not a particularly militant group. We are professionals and dedicated to the work do. For us to do something like this, even for one day, is extraordinary,” he said.

At the same time, the AJCommittee is negotiating a separate new contract with about 100 employees represented by AFL-CIO local DC 107, whose contract also expired last December. Those employees, mostly support staff, did not participate in the May 1 work stoppage.

How the labor conflict this will affect the three-day annual AJCommittee gathering — which some say is hoped to be the capstone of AJCommittee executive director David Harris’ career — is anyone’s guess.

Levine said his group will not disrupt the event at the Capitol Hilton, where invited guests include Secretary of Defense William Cohen, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the Vatican’s chief Jewish liaison.

But Levine added: “We will seek ways of highlighting this dispute in a non-disruptive manner.”

Harris responded that he is “not at all” concerned about next week’s annual affair, which brings together hundreds of national and international members to hold policy sessions with federal lawmakers, policy experts and Jewish communal heads on such domestic and world issues as immigration, welfare, affirmative action and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

He said if a labor agreement is not reached by the time of the meeting, it will be resolved the next week or the week after.

But Harris criticized the staff union for bringing its struggle to the media, in the form of a press release.

“I was surprised and disappointed and frankly I was puzzled,” he said Tuesday. "We have had ongoing negotiations. The differences over time have narrowed.”

Levine said the sticking points with management involve compensation: too-small raises and givebacks in health benefits and pension plans, issues affecting most employees in corporate America.

But AJCommittee staffers believe that Jewish non-profit agencies — especially the committee which considers itself the premier Jewish organization in America — should be treating its employees with more care and respect.

“There is a sense this is not General Motors. This is a Jewish organization, and they should have a greater concern for rights,” said one staffer.

A release issued by the staff organization outlined the problems.

“In spite of several years of sustained fiscal growth for the Committee, its management has proposed the lowest salary increment in decades — lower even than that in the last agreement.”

Salaries for most union staffers range from $30,000 to $70,000, said a union source. Harris’ salary, according to the agency’s 1996-97 tax filing, was $238,321. AJC associate executive director Shulamith Bahat, who is involved in the current negotiations, earned $168,722.

Besides raises, the most contentious issues are pensions and health coverage.

The staff organization states that its members have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to their pension plan over the last 10 years while management “has not contributed a penny.”

They say suggestions of a staff-management panel to study the issue three years ago have been rejected by management.

Regarding medical benefits, the staff union says it is seeking assurances coverage will not be cut again after years of cost increases to employees. They charge that management violated the contract by unilaterally increasing insurance deductibles.

“We are now only asking AJC Management to assure us that these reduced health insurance benefits will not be reduced further.”

But Levine insists that the conflict is not only about money but a change of management attitude of arrogance and disrespect.

“We are saddened to have to report that the attitude of AJC’s management toward its staff has become callous and degrading — hardly what one would expect from America’s pioneer human relations organization.

“By looking at the balance sheet in annual reports, our sense is the committee’s campaign has grown on average 6 to 7 percent a year for the past three years,” Levine said.

But Harris, declining to get into specifics of negotiation, countered that “the salary and benefit package here at AJC is certainly competitive with other not-for-profit organizations, and that includes both pensions and health plans.”

As for whether Jewish organizations should be expected to care more for their employees, Harris contended that AJC’s vacation, holiday and sick-leave policies are certainly more generous than elsewhere, certainly than in the corporate sector.

While Levine credits Harris’ management for turning around the committee’s sinking fortunes in the early 1990s through layoffs and cutting programs, he says the agency is now in a position to afford employee demands.

But Harris called the group’s growth “modest” and said he must balance employee demands against the long-term financial health of the 92-year-old agency, which suffered fiscal problems in the early 1990s, he said. About 15 percent of the organization’s 200-member staff was let go under Harris’ belt-tightening plan.

“What we tried to do is restore the fiscal health of agency,” Harris said. He said he is now trying to insure that AJC is prepared for any downturn in income due to a market reversal “and thereby ensure the job security of current employees.”